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Making music: A teacher brings a Grammy winner to Vashon
Almost 200 McMurray Middle School and Vashon High School band students are tuning up for the biggest gig they’ve ever had — a pops concert on June 2, where they will play a song guest-conducted by Grammy Award-winning composer Christopher Tin.
It’s a turn of events that has more than a few Islanders pinching themselves, wondering if it’s really happening — but it is, thanks to the winning combination of a popular music teacher’s enthusiasm and persistence and a young composer’s generosity and accessibility.
Tin, a 35-year-old composer at the peak of his career, writes music for film, television, video games, computer applications, advertising and other media, and his work has been performed by major orchestras around the world.
But next week, he’ll put all that aside to travel from California to Vashon to conduct Vashon kids as they play his song “Baba Yetu” in a new arrangement by Ken Quehrn, who teaches band at McMurray and VHS.
“I keep telling the kids that he’s used to hearing professionals playing it, so we’ve got to do it right,” Quehrn said on a recent afternoon, after spending a day leading his students through the paces of “Baba Yetu” and other music that will be played in the concert.
Quehrn, a blond, bespectacled bear of a man, is still marveling at his collaboration with the famous composer.
“This has been really, really exciting,” he said, with an energy level that seemed remarkably high for someone who had just spent six long and noisy hours listening to teenagers play music. “I’ve never done anything like this before.”
Quehrn credited one of his students, high school percussionist Kellan Faker-Boyle, with introducing him to “Baba Yetu” — a piece of music Tin originally composed for the popular video game, “Civilizations IV.” The song, which features soaring vocals sung by the Soweto Gospel Choir, is also used as a featured segment for the Dubai Fountain, the world’s largest choreographed fountain, situated at the base of the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest skyscraper.
Quehrn said he fell in love with the piece, and immediately got the idea to have his combined bands in grades six through 12 play it in a pops concert.
But last year, after doing some online research and purchasing the sheet music for the piece, Quehrn still didn’t know if there was an arrangement of “Baba Yetu” for just band, with no vocals. That’s when he noticed Tin’s email address on the sheet music and decided to contact him.
Thus began an email correspondence that resulted not only in Tin giving Quehrn permission to adapt his piece, but, even more amazingly, agreeing to conduct the piece in concert. One of the composer’s few stipulations was that no audio or video recordings be made of the piece.
Quehrn said he was “absolutely blown away” that Tin had been so open to working with him.
“This whole thing has been a lesson to me, and the kids too — you never know what’s going to happen until you ask,” he said. “Try. Shoot for the stars.”
Quehrn arranged for what he called “extremely reasonable” funding for Tin’s travel through the Bruchas Will, an endowment that provides special funding for music programs in the Vashon schools, and began working on his arragement of “Baba Yeta” starting late last year.
But then, on Feb. 11, another incredible thing happened.
Tin won two Grammy Awards — one for best classical crossover album for his CD, “Calling All Dawns,” and another for “Baba Yetu,” which picked up the prize for best instrumental arrangement accompanying vocalists.
Throughout it all, Quehrn said, Tin remained accessible and still willing to come to Vashon.
“He didn’t change his deal with us, not even after he won two Grammy Awards,” Quehrn said. “He’s just a very down to earth and humble person.”
Tin, speaking from his home in Southern California, seemed to fit Quehrn’s description to a T.
Asked how he felt about the prospect of hearing Island students play “Baba Yetu,” after having heard it played by some of the world’s best classical musicians and choral artists, he said he was looking forward to the experience.
“I think it’s a lot of fun to hear students play — it’s really wonderful seeing how much they get into it,” he said. “Professional musicians are sometimes a little more jaded, and it’s not special for them. People who do music purely for music’s sake, especially kids, are always great to work with.”
Tin’s appearance on Vashon will include a clinic with the high school band. He’ll also field questions at a community session just prior to the pops concert.
And then it will be show time — the moment for Quehrn to pick up an instrument and join his bands as they play “Baba Yetu,” with Tin wielding the baton.
“You bet I’m going to be in the band,” Quehrn said. “I want to put it on my resume that I was in an ensemble conducted by Christopher Tin.”
He hasn’t yet decided, though, if he’ll play a percussion instrument or the saxophone. But he’s leaning toward the drums.
“I’m probably going to be bawling, and it’s easier to play drums and cry,” he said.
The concert will be held at 7 p.m. Thursday, June 2, in the VHS gym. Admission is by donation. Christopher Tin will appear before the concert, at 6 p.m., for a community question and answer session. No recording devices are allowed during the concert.